Very early on in his life, Ian Burnet knew he was destined for a life of adventure. Growing up in a small isolated country town in his native Australia instilled in him an obsessive ambition to get out of town a fast as possible. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology and Geophysics from the University of Melbourne in 1966, he resolved to see the rest of the world, starting work as a geologist on some of the first off shore oil field explorations in Indonesia.
Along the way, the young man became intrigued with the fascinating history of this maddeningly complex country. In 2011, Ian published Spice Islands , a history of the archipelago’s spice trade. Following up on his successful first book, he wrote East Indies, which will be published in September 2013. Ian presently organizes sailing voyages to Maluku, the original spice islands of Dutch colonial history. He shared his story with Tempo contributor, Bill Dalton.
When was your first visit to Indonesia?
In 1968, just after the events described in the book The Year of Living Dangerously took place. The first off shore oil exploration contracts had just been awarded to foreign companies, and as a young 24-year-old geologist, I came here to work for an American seismic exploration company. I spent more than 12 years living in Indonesia and another 10 years travelling back and forth during my career as a geologist. I now spend about 3-4 months a year here, researching and writing. As long as the stories keep coming, I will continue writing about this incredible and mystifying country.
When did you start writing?
Not until 2006, when I first started work on the manuscript for Spice Islands. Most of the first draft was written when my wife and I were living in Bali. Spice Islands was also the first piece of writing I ever published. Although the book has been well received, it was a labor of love and I don’t make my living from it. Fortunately, I have a retirement income. Otherwise I would be a ‘starving artist’.
What is your book Spice Islands all about?
The book tells of the disproportionate effect that the tiny and largely forgotten islands of Ternate and Tidore in northern Moluccas have had on world history. These islands were the only place on the planet in the 16th and 17th centuries where cloves grew, and where the global spice trade began. On reaching Europe, these simple flower buds were literally worth their weight in gold. It was the Portuguese and Spanish who competed to reach the Spice Islands that drove what is known as ‘The Age of Discovery’ and the first circumnavigation of our planet. We all know about the great explorers Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magellan, but we don’t know how they are linked together in their quest to reach the Spice Islands, and profit from the fabulous riches of the spice trade.
How did you get the idea of writing a book on the subject?
Kids going to school in Australia in the 1950s learnt nothing about Asian history. When I knew I was coming to work in Indonesia, I read all that I could find on Indonesian history and the ruthless Dutch East Indies Company. But it was a real surprise when I arrived here to learn that the Portuguese and the Spanish had been in Indonesia for 100 years before the Dutch! More than 30 years later, I realised that no one had written a complete history of the spice trade from an Indonesian perspective. This was an ‘untold story’ that had to be told.
Where did you do the historical research?
Fortunately, the inspiration for the book came in 2001 when I was living and working in London, so I had access to all the excellent research materials in the British Library. Subsequently, I spent a lot of time in the National Libraries of Indonesia, Singapore and Australia.
Where did you find the wonderful historic maps in your books?
They say that a picture is worth 1,000 words, but a historic map is worth 10,000 words. I took great pleasure in collecting all the images that go with both books, in particular the historic maps and paintings. The most memorable book talk I have given was at the State Library of NSW when, in conjunction with the presentation, my hosts had on display original copies of three of the historic maps in the book, plus an original copy of Linschotens’ magnificent Itinerario.
During your field research was there any time that you were in danger?
The mass killings occurred in Ambon, Halmahera, Tidore and Ternate in 1999, 2000 and 2001 respectively. I realized that I could not complete the book without travelling to the Spice Islands, and was planning a trip in 2005. I asked the Indonesian travel agent if he had heard of any unrest,he said no and that it had all been quiet for a couple of years. The next day we read of a bomb exploding in a market in Ambon. So my trip was delayed until 2006. As it turned out, there were no problems.
What was your vivid recollection of that trip?
Visiting the Sultan’s Palace in Ternate and meeting the sultan’s sister, Ibu Rini. A marvelous woman! She showed me around the museum in the palace, pointing out the most arresting Indonesian, Portuguese and Dutch historical artifacts. When the Japanese invaded Indonesia, the Dutch evacuated the sultan and his family to Australia. As a young child she went to school in Brisbane. Ibu Rini showed me a photograph of the family standing outside their house in Brisbane. So there’s a real Australian connection there.
Any advice to a beginning writer?
I am inspired to write stories that I would be interested in reading myself. I think that if you were not self-motivated, it would be very difficult to actually finish a book that contains so much research. My advice would be to first find an ‘untold story’ that you are really excited about. Secondly, it is really all about doing a lot of deep research to dig out unknown facts. Thirdly, although I am writing about factual history, I am trying to tell an adventure story, which will hopefully motivate the reader to turn the next page.
Tell us about the sailing voyages you organize to the Spice Islands?
With the publication of the book, there was great interest in the Spice Islands, but most foreigners were unsure how to travel there. Together with a company called SeaTrekBali, our voyages allow guests to explore the islands from Ambon to Banda to Ternate for 12 days on a traditional Indonesian built Bugis pinisi boat.We filled the vessel in 2012, and we expect to do the same again this October.
What is your next book about?
East Indies follows the old trade routes and the historic port cities across the East Indies and the Orient. Beginning in Malacca, which was one of the world’s largest trading ports in the 16th century, it tells the story of the 200-year struggle between the Portuguese Crown, the Dutch East Indies Company and the English East India Company for trade supremacy in the Eastern Seas. The story takes us to the ports of Banten, Ternate, Banda, Ambon, Solor, Johor, Tanjung Pinang, Penang, Macassar and Bencoolen (Bengkulu—Ed). The book documents the founding of the historic port city of Batavia and concludes with the founding of the modern port cities of Singapore and Hong Kong.
Just out of curiosity, do you personally like spices in your food?
Yes! My favorite Indonesian food has always been fiery nasi padang. I cook what my wife calls ‘survival food’ without many spices, but I have recently become an expert at making a really delicious Indonesian nutmeg cake!
East Indies is available in Asia at Periplus and Kinokuniya
East Indies is available in Australia at Dymocks, Abbeys and Kinokuniya
also on order from your favorite bookshop and all the usual online retailers